The radio on his desk was broadcasting the midday news update: “The UN Security Council has today had its worst fears realised, as potential world war may just be imminent.
“Reports have been circulated that the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, which was the location of the recent North Korean Horror Story, is planning a retaliation, after having the aforementioned child conditioning programme, a concentration camp of sorts for children intended to one day battle in the North Korean army, uncovered by Pyongyang Chief of Police, Chi Dewar and subsequently, brought to its knees.
“But with the mastermind responsible for these atrocities, General of the Pyongyang Army, Kodos Wanton, now incarcerated in a high security Pyongyang prison, subordinates who remain loyal to Wanton are said to be orchestrating an attack not only against their own country’s reign of authority, but on any country who shows dissention towards these actions.
“And for fear of becoming a target of said attack, this news reporter, will be sure to keep his, decidedly dis-agreeable, views, to himself.
“This has been Dunstan Gardner, bringing you the latest news updates, around the clock.”
It was ringing. It was answered on the third ring. “Hello,” said a female voice.
“Garth Gleeson speaking, I work as a consultant for the Christchurch branch, of your company.”
“Ah, Mr Gleeson, yes, I know you by reputation, how are you today?”
“Fine thank you,” he replied then added playfully, “although I am unsure how I ought to perceive your ‘reputation’ comment…”
“Oh, come now Mr Gleeson, your fine work record, hence reputation, precedes you, and let me assure you, that, is a very good thing.”
Garth allowed nervous laughter to escape his lips before continuing, “The reason for my call today, Mrs Clinton, is that I find myself struggling under a crisis of conscience, and were hoping for your professional, managerial, assistance.”
“Alright, Mr Gleeson, how can I assist?”
They both stared at the phone, neither wanting to be disturbed at what was such a momentous time, each practically daring the other to pick it up. The fourth ring passed. Beth started to fidget. Dave chewed any un-swallowed biscuit residue he could locate with his tongue. Newly named Kahn buried his face in his mother’s chest.
“Might be important,” Dave spoke without conviction.
“They can leave a message if it is,” Beth spoke defiantly.
“Fair enough,” said Dave.
“Good,” said Beth.
“Good,” said Kahn.
Mr and Mrs Walters continued staring into each other’s eyes for minutes after the phone had become silent.
“Do you know what else this means?” asked Beth, attempting to recapture the enthusiasm.
“What else does it mean, baby girl?”
“I can tell you how old he is.”
“Really – how old?” Dave inquired with an almost accusatory tone.
“Well, I don’t know his exact birthday, but like, he was a few months old when I first met him -”
“That’s, assuming he’s the same baby?”
“It is Dave, I know it in my heart – and the birthmark – it has to be, it’s little baby Kahn.”
“Alright then, we’ll go with that – so how old did ya reckon?”
“As I was saying, he was a few months old in, um, October of ninety-two, so what’s that – July, September, -”
“You missed August.”
Dave watched his dearly beloved mouth the words ‘September, October … August, September, October … July, August, September, October’ then aloud she said, “Yeah, about three months sounds right – so we’ll say, our little baby Kahn, was born in July, nineteen ninety-two, right?”
“Right,” having already done the math, he was enjoying helping Beth nut it out.
“Right, so if we’re almost in June two thousand and five, what’s that?”
“You tell me.”
Beth’s face started to contort as she clearly ran into a mental block.
“Come on, Baby girl, it’s not that difficult, forget about the months, just assume we’re in July O-five, right, then work it out like that.”
Beth’s makeup-streaked face was otherwise blank. Her bottom lip started to tremble.
“Hey, hey, come on, no, it has not defeated you, you know you have trouble doing numbers in your head, so let’s talk it out,” meanwhile baby Kahn was staring up at his mother’s chin, as though he wanted to help but couldn’t find the words. Dave carried on; “Ninety-two is how many from a hundred?”
“Right, and eight and O-five is what?”
Beth inhaled sharply, before turning to gaze into her son’s dark eyes. “Oh, my sweet little baby Kahn is thirteen years old.”
“Well,” Dave corrected, “according to your logic, he will be in a month or so.”
“My logic’s perfect,” she argued.
“Never said it wasn’t…” Dave put his hands up in defence.
“My little baby Kahn is thirteen years old,” Beth hugged Kahn so tightly he started to squirm under her grasp, “you’re a teenager, Kahn, can you say that, teenager?”
“Teen-ag-er,” he repeated in an unexpected voice. It was most syllables he had ever put together and it took the parents a while to realise the peculiarity – Kahn’s voice was devoid of Asian accent.
Even in the midst of a phone call with his boss, he was still torn. Garth Gleeson liked Dave and Beth – Walters – after all, he had said it himself, ‘They were the kinds of parents the agency loved’, but rules were rules and Garth never had been a rule breaker.
“I have a couple, Mrs Clinton, a darling Christchurch couple, both gainfully employed, but unable to have children of their own.”
“They sound ideal, Garth, give them as many kids as they’ll take.”
“That’s the thing though, we have given them a child, one of the North Korean Horror Story orphans in fact” – the catching of Mrs Clinton’s breath was noted – “and they simply adore the child, they really do, but Mrs Clinton, here’s the pickle -”
“I don’t care how big a pickle there is,” she cut in vehemently, “this couple sounds brilliant.”
“And they are, Mrs Clinton, lovely people, but as I said, should I proceed with these people, I am at risk of acting unethically.”
“What’s the nature of this pickle, Garth?”
“On the application form, which Mrs Walters has filled out online, in the section marked ‘marital status’, she has checked the box beside ‘married’ – as you know, a foremost criterion of adoption, the essence of with which, I wholeheartedly agree -”
“Does your spiel plan to come to a crux soon, Mr Gleeson? I am very busy.”
“Right, sorry, yes, the point, or crux, or pickle that I have encountered is in the sense that it has come to my attention, Mrs Clinton, and after some further researching on my part, I was able to confirm this, the fact that the couple are indeed, unmarried.”
“So that’s the crux … Also the reason for your ‘crisis of conscience’, of which you earlier spoke?”
“Yes, but as I say, Mrs Clinton, lovely people, aside from the fact that she lied on her application form – and they are unmarried.”
“Yes, but marriage is fast going out of fashion, Mr Gleeson, have you noticed this?”
“I have, but the sanctity of the aforementioned union is still a sacred bond…”
“Come on Garth, you and I both know that is plain untrue – how long has their union stood?”
“Ah, they have been in a de facto union now for over ten years, Mrs Clinton.”
“And she’s a good mother – they’re a good family?”
“Certainly, as I mentioned, Mrs Walters simply adores the child -”
“And this is a Korean child from that ghastly Korean Horror thing?”
“Yes, a lovely boy.”
“Well Garth, it sounds like this woman deserves a medal, rather than being penalised by your pedantry…”
“But, Mrs Clinton, as I was saying, she improperly filled out a legal document.”
“And is this not something you have ever done, Garth?”
“Good heavens, Mrs Clinton, no.”
“Then perhaps you need to get out more, and lighten up Garth, it’s just bureaucracy, nothing to lose sleep over.”
“But the welfare of a child may be at stake…”
“I thought you said the child was well loved.”
“Yes, Mrs Clinton, I did, and he is but, they lied…”
“Lighten up, Garth, everyone lies … Hope you sleep better tonight.”
She hung up the phone and he did – he slept much better that night.
He’d managed three syllables, now she was intent on his structuring a complete sentence. Since beginning Kahn’s tutelage in April Beth had become quite the little headmistress; she could now understand that although he had been hitherto bereft of any kind of education, his mind was still much more developed than that of a baby: Kahn’s comprehension was brilliant and retention of ideas, simply outstanding. Beth had taught him to count, conveying the concept that a higher number equals more, by stacking building blocks and counting together as each was placed atop the one before it, higher and higher; bigger and bigger. The picture books she had were a source of great enjoyment for them both, with Kahn now able to point out the names of the animals on Old MacDonald’s farm and even name the colours of the farm implements; understandably for a child who has spent his formative years in a sterile environment enclosed by, Beth presumed, cold steel walls and concrete floors, he appeared to have an almighty passion for nature. He particularly loved colours, especially green, and fixated over those books with pictures of long grass, shrubs or trees; when they went on their walks around the neighbourhood Beth noticed the same thing – how amazed the boy appeared to be by everything. She could only imagine what it must be like as a thirteen-year-old to be seeing everything for the first time, and was very much looking forward to showing Kahn the beauty of a New Zealand springtime.
On the 1st day of July Beth and Dave held a 13th birthday celebration for their son. They had a cake and presents but as they weren’t yet certain how the boy would respond to outside company, they didn’t invite any guests; Mum wasn’t sure she was ready to share her son’s affections, anyway. The day turned out to be cold, the party stayed indoors by the heat of a log burning fireplace and by that evening, for the first time that winter, snow started to fall. Understandably, Kahn was mesmerised; he and Beth stayed up late that evening, cuddling by the window, enjoying the warmth of the fire and the warmth of each other, just gazing out at the drifting snow illuminated against orange streetlights.
It was a day the proud parents would always remember – the day Kahn Walters turned 13, going on 1.
It was nearing eight p.m. the following evening when a pair of headlights pulled into the driveway. She waited. A minute later a smartly dressed, pleasantly voluptuous woman stepped out from the drivers’ side. Beth watched with envy as, balanced atop four-inch stiletto heels, like a cool gust of wind the woman drifted towards the porch. Seconds after that came three firm, no-nonsense raps on the door. Beth hesitantly stepped into the foyer and answered it. The woman who confronted her was of middle-age, but was not clinging to it with such unabashed tenacity as ol’ smoky, attired in a smooth white, pleated business shirt with a well-fitted black skirt that cut off just below the knee. Beth didn’t care who she was, she like her at once.
“Good morning, Mrs Walters, I assume..?” the lady asked in a disarming tone.
“Ah … Yes, and who may I -”
“Rachael Clinton,” she abruptly offered a slender hand, exquisite finger nails, along with a beautiful broad smile, “Chief Executive of Second Chance Adoption, pleased to meet you, Mrs Walters.”
Beth didn’t see the need for such emphasis on ‘Mrs’, and it left her somewhat unsettled: “And you, Miss Clinton -”
“It’s, Mrs, actually,” the woman smiled knowingly. “Married when I was still in school – baby on the way, in those days, what’s a girl to do?”
“Oh, well, ah, do come in, Mrs Clinton … Would you like a hot drink?”
“Tea will be fine, thank you – black, no sugar.”
Beth went into the kitchen and flicked on the kettle, trying to come up with the reason that the Adoption Agency would be unleashing a surprise visit upon her…
“You’re probably wondering why I’m here, Mrs Walters,” said the delightfully chic lady, “I had a call yesterday from a Mr Gleeson – you’ve dealt with him, I understand.”
“Yes, lovely man,” she thought of the last time she’d seen the broad character – the same day she’d met Kahn for the first time…
“Yes, lovely man,” she agreed. “Mrs Walters, just yesterday I had some rather unsettling news from the old nanny goat himself – seems he’s recently discovered that you are not technically married to your current life partner.”
Beth was horrified – ‘current life partner’ suggested she went through one or two each year; also disturbing was that her marital guise had been uncovered. “Oh,” was all she said.
“Yes, but I’m not particularly worried about that – Garth assures me you are a wonderful mother and if there’s one thing this country needs, it’s more wonderful mothers.”
“Oh,” she said again while the words sank in, “thank you, I do love Kahn very much – and I am sorry for lying on the application form, I just didn’t think we’d get a baby if I admitted that I was, you know, living in sin.”
This comment elicited a sizable laugh from Mrs Clinton: “Oh, Mrs Walters, Garth was right, you really are a delight, but no, honey, this is the twenty-first century, long gone are the days of the shotgun wedding, of a girl needing to be tethered and fettered to a male counterpart before she can rightfully give birth, and good riddance to it, I say … No, Mrs Walters, I was actually curious, I would like to see this child, one of the – what was it – five thousand or so orphaned children from that Korean atrocity, if that’s alright with you, of course..?”
“Oh, Mrs Clinton, I’ve actually just put Kahn to bed, we’ve had a tiring day today, we had a birthday celebration for him yesterday, so we’re all pretty worn out you see, but you’re welcome to come back another time – I’m always here – if you could just make it a shade earlier next time..?”
Mrs Clinton considered this: “That might be problematic, you see, I’m based in Auckland and the majority of the time that’s where I am, except when Garth called me today, I was already in Christchurch, overseeing various work-related endeavours, so thought I’d come and check on you and the young lad personally – I fly back up to Auckland early tomorrow morning, Mrs Walters.”
“Oh … So I guess if you were going to see Kahn, it would have to be tonight..?”
“If it’s not too much trouble…”
“Oh, OK, I’ll go and see if he’s still awake.”
Beth ducked away, leaving Mrs Clinton to make her own tea. A moment later Beth returned looking rather anxious: “Alright, Mrs Clinton,” she whispered, “you can come through now.”
The two women stepped back through the foyer then into a short hallway. Beth gently pushed open the first door on the right. Mrs Clinton followed her inside. Beth switched on the bedside light, vanquishing the immediate darkness and revealing the timid face of a dark-skinned boy, the blankets pulled up under his chin, his eyes barely open at all. “Hello, Kahn,” said Mrs Clinton, “my name is Rachael … sorry for calling so late, I just wanted to see you for myself.”
“Rachael works for the place you came from,” Beth said softly, “before you came to live with us.” Kahn’s eyes widened. His pupils enlarged. His gaze flicked rapidly from Beth to Rachael and back again: “Oh no,” squeaked Beth, “he thinks I mean North Korea.” She hurriedly leaned over the bed and kissed him on the forehead. “No, no, it’s alright, baby, I didn’t mean that awful place,” she scrambled to make up ground, “I meant here, after that, in this country, Rachael works for that place.” Beth glanced up; Rachael looked apologetic.
“I’m sorry, Mrs Walters,” Rachael said, “for causing such a fuss – God, he’ll probably never get to sleep now.”
“No, Mrs Clinton,” replied Beth, stroking her petrified son’s forehead, “it was my fault, I should have thought before I spoke.”
“Anyway, Beth, thank you for indulging me, I’m sorry for the fuss, but I am glad to have seen the boy, and I have also seen firsthand what a tremendously caring mother you are so on that note, I shall bid you farewell.”
Beth waved as the Chief Executive’s car departed, hoping that she looked that good at middle-age. She immediately went back to Kahn’s bedroom. The boy was asleep.